POCATELLO — When they learned roughly three years ago that one of their employees was embezzling funds from its representative payee program, BJ Stensland said officials at Aid For Friends never thought twice about doing the right thing and being open about it — even at a potentially high cost.
Earlier this month, Stensland said Aid for Friends was notified that it would indeed pay that ultimate price.
“On Jan. 7, we were notified that Aid For Friends can no longer serve as a representative payee for Social Security and SSI clients,” she said. “It’s my understanding this was a decision by Social Security over what had happened over the past three years.”
Elizabeth Staley, who used the service from Aid For Friends for several years, said she was surprised when she received a call from Social Security.
“I got a call about three weeks ago,” Staley said. “It was a really weird call.”
But the bottom line was that she was now looking for a new payee service. Staley said the man who called her gave her some possible options. Staley ultimately chose to use an Oregon-based service that is considering opening an office in this area if they get enough clients.
Staley, who estimates she was a client of the Aid For Friends’ program for a decade, says she is still unsure of what she did or did not lose because of the embezzlement that took place in the Aid For Friends program.
Last month, Barbara Waters, former longtime manager of the Aid For Friends Representative Payee Program was sentenced to five months in federal prison and ordered to pay a little more than $88,000 in restitution for embezzling funds from the program for several years. She managed that program for about 12 years, ending in 2011.
Last year, her assistant, Leslie Biggs, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $104,000 in restitution. Briggs admitted to writing checks from the trust account for personal expenses from November of 2008 to December of 2010.
To reduce future opportunities for theft, new procedures were put in place to enhance the security of the payees’ funds, Stensland told the Journal last September.
Local attorney Scott Heide, board chairman for Aid For Friends, told the Journal last month that the new procedures helped uncover another Aid For Friends employee who stole funds.
Mindi Etcheverry took $2,400 from the trust account in early October, Heide said, and the theft was quickly discovered when compared to the length of time — several years — that Briggs and Waters were able to embezzle funds.
Etcheverry cooperated in the investigation and was subsequently charged with misdemeanor petit theft. She has already repaid $2,100 of the funds taken and Heide said she committed to repaying the remaining $300 when she receives her IRS return.
Etcheverry pleaded guilty to the charge on Friday and was sentenced to 60 days in Bannock County Jail, which was suspended. She was also ordered to pay $462.50 in fines and fees.
Stensland said she believed Aid For Friends was doing all it needed to maintain the confidence of the Social Security Administration and retain its right to serve as a representative payee. But she thinks the latest incident simply tilted the scales too far to the wrong side.
It is possible that Aid For Friends could seek to once again be a representative payee for Social Security and SSI, but for now, Stensland said, “we are accepting their decision.”
Her work on that program currently consists of helping to move their clients over to other programs that will provide the payee services. Aid For Friends will continue to provide payee services for VA beneficiaries. But that reduces the nonprofit’s representative payee program from about 150 clients to fewer than 10.
Stensland also said that the food service program offered every Wednesday with the help of the Idaho Food Bank will continue. She said their payee program clients who would often pick up their weekly spending money checks on Wednesday, were also able to pick up some food items to help supplement their needs.
She is continuing the food distribution and wants the former representative payee program clients to know they can still come there every Wednesday to get the needed food items.
Despite its loss, the payee program is not the primary mission of Aid For Friends. It was a service they provided that offered a small revenue stream, one that the operation will not suffer without, Stensland said.
When officials with Aid For Friends discovered the embezzlement had occurred in 2011, Stensland said they stuck to their core values, including the one that calls on them to be honest. They notified police and the Social Security Administration about the theft, knowing all the while that it could hurt their reputation and ultimately result in their losing the right to offer the representative payee service.
“We knew that and the board stood fast that it was the right action to take even though the outcome might be to lose the program,” she said.
But the nonprofit’s core mission is well intact. That mission for the past 30 years has been to provide shelter for the community’s homeless population and to help them transition back into permanent housing.
To that end, Aid For Friends operates a homeless shelter that can accommodate as many as 35 to 40 people, depending on the size of the families they are serving.
The operation’s shelter includes a separate floor for single men, where they have eight beds and room for additional cots if needed for overflow. The family floor has five private rooms for families and there is an area set aside for single women.
Stensland said that while other shelters in the area target certain groups, Aid For Friends is open to all, with the exception of runaways. That service, she said is provided by another operation.
Aid For Friends also oversees 11 units used for transitional housing. Individuals and families who occupy those units can come not only from their own shelter, but also from other shelters or agencies in the area.
“This is transitional housing where they can learn to become familiar with how to be good tenants, learn to pay their rent on time,” Stensland said.
While the tenants pay rent, Stensland said half of that money, up to $5,000, is set aside to help with the expenses of transitioning into permanent housing.
“It’s a very structured program,” she said. “It’s available to anyone who is using any of the other programs. They just have to be homeless according to HUD guidelines.”
Another program Aid For Friends offers to help keep families from becoming homeless is one that allows it to help out financially.
“It’s a good program for those people who had a sudden financial impact, they lost hours at work, lost a job, had medical bills,” Stensland said. “Something happened to them short-term.”
Unfortunately, she said, that program’s funds are depleted for the current fiscal year.